From the airport to Seattle: It doesn't look like you can get there from here

The light rail system lacks one thing: an information system that works for someone who doesn't already know how to get around here.
The light rail system lacks one thing: an information system that works for someone who doesn't already know how to get around here.

When it comes to wayfinding design and the million details that help people make their way to, through and around the city and region, we're average at best. Mostly, we rest on "workmanlike" execution instead of achieving clear functional excellence when it comes to route-finding, visitor information and the like.

Broad brush, for sure, but here's a case in point: getting from the airport to downtown Seattle on Sound Transit's multi-billion dollar train line. Put oneself in the spot of a fresh arrival to Seattle and it appears that neither Sound Transit nor the Port of Seattle have given systemic thought to how to make the experience effortless, given the disconnected, uncoordinated and poorly designed user information experience (see slideshow). 

Returning home from a holiday trip by airline, we opted for taking the Sound Transit train from Sea-Tac to our stop in Mount Baker. It wasn't the first time so we knew the drill, but this time I put myself in the mind of someone who hadn't done it before — a tourist, visitor or local — who wanted to get from the airport to downtown quickly, cheaply and easily after staggering off a long flight.

It was ridiculously unclear.

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First contact point: the signage leaving the airport terminal. You can find your baggage or a taxi or even a limo on these signs if you'd like, but there is zero indication that a "Train to Seattle" even exists. If you're an insider (perhaps you sit on Sound Transit's board of directors or already have an Orca card swimming in your pocket), then you'll know the insider code: "Link Light Rail" is our insidery way of saying "Train to Seattle." By the way, note the difference between a "Downtown Airporter" and  "Scheduled Airporters" — if you're into airporting — because the sign insists they are in different places. Is that connected to the person who will check in your luggage for you? 

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Next up, leaving the skybridge to the parking garage, a friendly stick-on sign from Sound Transit. A clue! Link Light Rail goes to Seattle, indeed. How often? How much? How to decide whether to take it or something else before you leave the building? No clue. This sign does look like the Night Train — there's two different "last" times listed, both headed north, and damn, they are hours from now. When does it run during the day? How often? Did we miss that sign someplace?

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Take a stab and walk down that long outdoor pathway anyway, through the parking garage. Look, a signpost up ahead ... a high-tech-looking readerboard, all amber and mission-control-y. Will it reveal more? Well, there's the time and a message... "Welcome to Sea-Tac Airport." OK. But I'm walking out of the airport, not into it, and I'm still kind of interested to know if there is a next train. And when it might be leaving. And whether I am even going toward a place that I want to be. But, that was a cool sign-thingy and I'm glad it wanted to say hello.

Persist in your path, new visitor, and you will be rewarded by a station, and some ticket machines, and some escalators to a platform — and trains! Victory is within grasp. There are two trains waiting, two tracks, and not much clue which one is leaving next. Opting for the one with more people in it seems the best bet, so pile on and peek at the map inside.

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Where is Seattle? Does this thing even go downtown? The word Seattle doesn't even appear on the signs on board the trains! There appear to be canoes in a place called Tukwila and both Rainier Beach and Columbia City look to be bird refuges of some sort, according to the cutesy-to-the-point-of-random icons. Wait it out to the end of the line and perhaps you'll be closer to DOWNTOWN SEATTLE? There is a University Street — is that near the UW? Hmmm, a place called Westlake — is that by Bellevue or Lake Union? 

It shouldn't be this hard and well, you get the idea.

Public utilities like transport require sharp, clear, ideally fresh but indisputably excellent information design in order to function at anything near their optimum. Much of what we often see makes some critical errors: systems designed by people thinking like insiders rather than outsiders, not considering the entire user experience start to finish in a linear, continuous way (in this case, from the moment of walking off the plane until the moment a visitors steps out into downtown Seattle or "wherever your destination takes you," as the air crew benediction goes). Another error is to rely on cutesy graphic decoration rather than design iterations that are proven through research and testing to function best at what they are trying to do.

In the case of the train from the airport, a sequence that communciates schedule and fare information — "Trains to Seattle, about every 10 minutes, just a couple of bucks and it's only a three-minute walk from here, over thattaway..." — would be more effective for passengers leaving from any part of Sea-Tac.

If you cannot find your way from the airport to Seattle on the train without cross-checking the interwebs or asking for clues, then the information system isn't really designed at all. (And let's not get started on what happens when poorly designed systems fail — the add-on-sticker-sign explosion begins, which has started on Sound Transit's trains — more and more signs stuck here and there to try to make signage work that doesn't.)

Transport in this region takes inter-agency coordination and perhaps that is what is lacking here. A visitor or user doesn't care if the airport, the train or the buses are operated by different bureaucracies, they just want a seamless, easier experience — and the information that will help make it that way without having to struggle to assemble the pieces.

It would make sense for Sound Transit, Metro, the Port and others to combine their information design shops into one Regional Transportation Design unit to make the larger regional information systems work better for users. That's not a merger, it's a move for operational excellence. They could then tap into leading global expertise on the matter while still saving money in reducing the duplication of design silos in each agency. They'd also get a better result.

Meanwhile, back at Sea-Tac Airport, pity the person who just wants to find a bus. That first sign out of the terminal points in two different directions for "Public Transit Buses" — go up ahead or also go downstairs. Maybe you should just wander around awhile until you find someone going your way.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.